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Can you be autistic with good eye contact?

Updated: Mar 22

Understanding Eye Contact in Autistic Adults

Societal norms often dictate that no or limited eye contact is a quintessential indicator of being autistic. However, the reality is far more complex and nuanced, as many autistic adults give 'good eye contact' yet have a diagnosis or self-identify. As an occupational therapist specialising in supporting neurodivergent adults, it's crucial to explore the multifaceted reasons behind this and emphasise the importance of recognising the diverse experiences of autistic people.

At first glance, some autistic adults giving eye contact might seem contradictory to the conventional understanding of autism. Yet, giving 'good eye contact' can be attributed to masking, this involves consciously or subconsciously adopting behaviours to camouflage traits that might be deemed 'different' by societal standards. It's a mechanism often employed by us autistic people to navigate social interactions.

Imagine this scenario: an autistic adult, after years of observation, learns that maintaining eye contact is considered socially appropriate. They meticulously practice and incorporate this behaviour into their interactions, effectively 'masking' their real dislike or pain of eye contact. Similarly, some autistic adults don't realise they are masking at first, I didn't! But I knew that giving eye contact made me feel uncomfortable but I pushed through it and assumed everyone felt this way!. Additionally in order to make eye contact it can take a lot of energy, I often find myself having to say in my head "now look at their eyes, now look away, now look again". Masking does sometimes lead to misdiagnosis or late diagnosis as when we were a child we appeared 'normal', masking long term can also contribute to fatigue and burnout. So its important to consider that just because someone can give eye contact doesn't mean this is their preference or comfortable or sustainable.

Moreover, autism itself is a spectrum (this does not mean from not autistic to autistic!), it is a range of strengths, challenges, and traits that are unique in each individual. Within this spectrum, we often have 'spikey profiles.' This concept refers to the mixed distribution of skills and challenges across various areas. For example, an autistic person might excel in certain areas, such as eye contact, perhaps even enjoying it!, while experiencing challenges in other social or sensory aspects. In my case, I'm good at being empathetic, but I have challenges with reading people's intentions. Recognising these spikey profiles is crucial in understanding the complexity of autism beyond surface-level 'behaviours'. Just because someone is 'good' at eye contact doesn't mean they are not autistic, nor does it mean that there aren't other areas they find challenging.

In my experience not giving eye contact can help with

  1. more concentration - not looking at someone's eyes helps me concentrate instead of saying "look, now look away" constantly in my head

  2. less fatigue

  3. less sensory overwhelm

  4. feeling more comfortable and relaxed

  5. is a factor in preventing burnout and fatigue

Therefore if you don't want to or feel comfortable giving eye contact you shouldn't be forced to do so! I started by unmasking in this way around those I trust first of all.

In conclusion, some autistic adults do give eye contact. We should be perceived through a lens that considers masking, the diverse spectrum of autism, and the concept of spikey profiles. As an occupational therapist, I'm committed to fostering an environment that celebrates neurodiversity and offers genuine validation and support to autistic adults navigating their unique journeys.

If you or a loved one seek personalised support tailored to the needs of autistic adults, I invite you to get in touch, I'd love to support you. No eye contact necessary!

a zoomed in photo of an eyeball with bright colooured iris

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